Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

ETO Autumn 2020 Season Announcement: Lyric Solitude

English Touring Opera are delighted to announce a season of lyric monodramas to tour nationally from October to December. The season features music for solo singer and piano by Argento, Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich with a bold and inventive approach to making opera during social distancing.

Love, always: Chanticleer, Live from London … via San Francisco

This tenth of ten Live from London concerts was in fact a recorded live performance from California. It was no less enjoyable for that, and it was also uplifting to learn that this wasn’t in fact the ‘last’ LfL event that we will be able to enjoy, courtesy of VOCES8 and their fellow vocal ensembles (more below …).

Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Ever since Wigmore Hall announced their superb series of autumn concerts, all streamed live and available free of charge, I’d been looking forward to this song recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper.

Henry Purcell, Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Vol. III: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

The Sixteen continues its exploration of Henry Purcell’s Welcome Songs for Charles II. As with Robert King’s pioneering Purcell series begun over thirty years ago for Hyperion, Harry Christophers is recording two Welcome Songs per disc.

Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

Although Stile Antico’s programme article for their Live from London recital introduced their selection from the many treasures of the English Renaissance in the context of the theological debates and upheavals of the Tudor and Elizabethan years, their performance was more evocative of private chamber music than of public liturgy.

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

A wonderful Wigmore Hall debut by Elizabeth Llewellyn

Evidently, face masks don’t stifle appreciative “Bravo!”s. And, reducing audience numbers doesn’t lower the volume of such acclamations. For, the audience at Wigmore Hall gave soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper a greatly deserved warm reception and hearty response following this lunchtime recital of late-Romantic song.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

06 Jul 2019

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

A Rachmaninov Drama: Middle Temple Hall, Temple Song Series

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Roderick Williams (baritone)

Photo courtesy of Groves Artists

 

But his songs - there are over eighty románsy, as they are known in Russian - are increasingly well-known among audiences, and this ‘Rachmaninov Drama’, curated by Julius Drake and performed by the pianist, baritone Roderick Williams and soprano Sofia Fomina at Middle Temple Hall showed why they deserve to be heard and admired, confirming as they do Rachmaninov’s skill as a Romantic melodist, as a crafter of emotional drama and as a virtuosic pianist.

The sequence of twenty-four songs was performed in alternation by the singers, often with the songs running segue, creating an on-going ‘dialogue’ and sustaining a dramatic fluency as we journeyed through tales of love unrequited, fulfilled and lost, of love’s illusions and finally love’s regrets. Though they are, in general, fairly brief and follow a similar method, the songs offer diversity of mood and meaning, and there were peaks of emotional tension, moments of lyric reflection and occasional folk-like whimsy.

Sofia Fomina immediately established an emotional sound world, opening the programme with ‘The soldier’s wife’, a folk-style lament in which a woman regrets her marriage to an orphan who has been in the army for twenty-five years, leaving her without family and home, an outsider in her village. Fomina used her powerful lyric soprano, emotive vibrato and rich array of colour to create a mood of great pathos. In ‘At My Window’ the passions expressed were more ecstatic as her soprano rose confidently to the melodic peaks; ‘A passing breeze’ was more ruminative, as Fomina held back, painting an evocative picture of a dark ocean soon to be richly illumined by the regenerative sunrise.

The impassioned joy she conjured in ‘Spring Torrents’ - “Spring comes, spring comes!” - brought a warm smile to the face of Roderick Williams, seated to the side. In contrast, ‘There is a small island’ Op.14/2 - the text of which was credited in the programme as being by Konstantin Balmont, when in fact it is a translation by the Russian poet of a lyric poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley - was dreamy and wistful: as sort of musical paysage in which Fomina’s initial light-voiced declamatory reflections on the luxuriant verdure of the island gave way to increasingly more defined melodic shapes, reaching down to the voice’s lower register, conjuring the mystery and serenity of the sleeping, dreaming isle.

The early Op.8 set of songs concludes with a lengthy melodrama, ‘Prayer’ - Alexei Plescheyev’s translation of a text by Goethe - in which Fomina found fervour and intensity, as she expressed the guilt and torment of a woman who, having rebuffed a young man’s innocent love, now regrets the coldness which has resulted in his death and begs God’s forgiveness. The ending was magical, as the voice trailed up and away in a heaven-bound plea, “Hear my sinful prayer,/For I am wounded in my soul”, which was answered by three quiet, ambiguous piano chords.

Sometimes translated as ‘The Quest’, ‘A-oo’ made for a striking opening to the second half of the recital, with its hyperbolic metaphors and titular phrase - the calling-cry you make when you’ve lost track of your beloved when you’re wandering in the mountains. Fomina beautifully declared the lovers’ passion to be like that of a flower that, at noon, “lights the candle of another flower”. This song is one of the six Op.38 songs, in which the relative simplicity of the early songs has given way to a more complex medium, inspired by the symbolist poetry, and complemented by the tumultuous intricacies of the piano part with its extensive, extravagant postlude.

Fomina may have had an advantage over Roderick Williams, singing as she was in her mother tongue, but the baritone communicated with no less immediacy and honesty, his beautifully appealing voice speaking with unaffected sincerity and finely defined feeling. There was ardency and forthrightness in ‘I was with her’ Op.14/4, the final declaration of eternal unity with the beloved’s soul rising with strength and dignity. ‘Ah, never sing to me again’ Op.4/4 closed in bittersweet quietude, the sombre mood underpinned by the piano’s dark ostinato and low-lying counterpoint, as the poet-narrator spurned memories and melodies of “sorrowful Georgia” which recalled “Another life and a distant shore”.

Perhaps we missed a little ‘Russian colour’ in the more folk-like songs, such as ‘She is as fair as noon’ Op.14/9, with its lilting ripple in the accompaniment and lamenting sentiments. But, this was more than compensated for by Williams skilful control of line and structure. ‘How fair this place is’ Op.21/7, which Williams sang seated, rose beautifully at the close, as the poet-narrator lost himself in immersive reflections on “God - and I, Flowers, and an ageing pine./And you, my dream!”, the pianissimo fermata seeming to balance on the cusp of a reality which might dissolve into dream.

The extended monologue ‘Fate’ Op.21/2 was a wonderfully compelling drama of great rhetorical impact, in which the eponymous figure of destiny stalked the protagonist “with her walking crutch and sombre eyes”, constantly niggling him, “Tap, tap, tap”. Aleksei Apukhtin subtitled his poem ‘On Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’, intimating that the opening notes of the symphony signify Fate knocking at Beethoven’s door; whatever the truth or otherwise of that belief, Williams’ performance was ‘symphonic’ in stature and gripping in its theatrical and vocal immediacy.

The recital closed with Rachmaninov’s only song for two voices, though ‘Two Voices’ is less a ‘duet’ and more a ‘duologue’ as soprano and baritone sing separately, exchanging their short declamatory phrases back and forth. The man opens the song, enquiring of a young girl about the two men who had courted her, now that she has lost them both. Her replies tell of her emotional innocence, growth and ultimate regret, and though at times light-hearted the song had a conclusive sadness and sombreness: “Who shall you remember in your heart, my lovely one?” asked Williams; “I feel pity for the first, but I shall love the latter!” replied Fomina, her voice retreating quietly as she herself left the platform. She was to return, though, for a postscript: the ‘Letter to K.S. Stanislavsky from S. Rachmaninov’, one of twelve songs which were remained unpublished by Rachmaninov.

Throughout the recital, Julius Drake’s accompaniments were sure, sensitive and skilfully shaped. Whether sparse or complex, the piano’s contributions were eloquent but supportive, never distracting from and always complementing the voices. Small ‘echoes’ of the vocal lines made their mark, unobtrusively but pointedly; moods were etched evocatively - the wistful chains of chords at the close of ‘There is a small island’ and the tender piano postlude in ‘The sounds are many’ Op.26/1 were particularly moving.

Rachmaninov began his creative life as a composer of song, prompted by his love of poetry - that by his contemporaries Balmont, Severianin, and Brussof who exercised a strong intellectual and creative influence during the late nineteenth-century, as well as the work of earlier poets such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Merejkovsky, A. Tolstoy and Zhukovsky. He published his first songs in 1873; his last, the Six Songs Op.38 appeared in 1916, though these were followed by two ‘sacred songs’, the pencil sketches of which he gave to Nina Koshetz and which were subsequently presented to the Library of Congress in 1970 and published three years later.

The fall of the Romanov dynasty in February 1917 disrupted Russian concert life and forced Rachmaninov to look for employment outside his native land. A concert tour of the Scandinavian countries was followed by several invitations to travel to the US - including one to become conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he turned down - and in November 1918 he sailed from Oslo to New York. Thus began a new life as a concert pianist, performing up to seventy concerts a year in major cities such as Boston and New York, but also in smaller towns such as Davenport, Asheville, Syracuse - just about anywhere (as Richard D. Sylvester tells us in his 2014 Companion to the complete songs) where there was a suitable venue where Steinway could deliver and tune a piano.

From this time, after twenty-six years as a composer of rom ánsy, there were to be no more songs from Rachmaninov’s pen. Perhaps he felt that his songs, which so powerfully expressed the spirit of his homeland, needed a Russian audience. If so, he was mistaken. Though the Russian texts may place the songs at one remove, a committed and consummate performance can make their emotions and life-spirit immediate, real and compelling, as the audience members at Middle Temple Hall discovered, to their great pleasure.

Claire Seymour

Sofia Fomina (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Julius Drake (piano)

‘The soldier’s wife’, ‘I was with her, ‘At my window’, ‘Ah, never sing to me again’, ‘A ring’, ‘She is as fair as noon’, ‘A passing breeze’, ‘How fair this place is!’, ‘Spring torrents’, ‘Oh no, I beg you, forsake me not’, ‘Night is sorrowful’, ‘In the silence of the night’, ‘Dissonance’, ‘A-oo!’, ‘Fate’, ‘There is a small island’, ‘The sounds are many’, ‘Lilacs’, ‘Song of the disenchanted’, ‘A prayer’, ‘You knew him’, ‘When yesterday we met’, ‘Fragment from A. Musset’, ‘Two partings’, ‘P.S.: Letter to K.S. Stanislavsky from S. Rachmaninov’

Middle Temple Hall, London; Thursday 4th July 2019.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):